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Party Primaries: Threat or Menace?
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jducoeur
So in the end, MA went pretty much party-line Democrat. No huge surprise, and on a case-by-case basis generally a good thing: IMO, the Democratic candidates were mostly better than their Republican opponents. (One or two instances that I am less sure about, but I didn't have a lot of respect for most of the Republicans in the race.)

OTOH, in principle this kind of bugs me. I confess, I'd really like to have a sane, moderate alternative -- my beef with the Republicans is that few of them were anything like "moderate". Indeed, their messages mostly ranged from incoherent ("Reduce taxes and cut spending -- and don't forget that those evil Democrats are cutting your services!") to pure ugly tribalism (I am *really* tired of the "Pelosi == Satan" thing). I wound up pissed-off at some of the Democratic campaigns as well, but by and large the Republicans were consistently worse.

And the thing is, the system selects for this. Gerrymandering is a major force in the badness (and we're in for another round of that particular horror imminently), but the worst of it seems to be the way that primaries select for partisanship. In a heated environment like we have today, you *have* to be partisan and nasty in order to win the primary -- and some of the people who result from that process are genuinely partisan and nasty, not just pretending for sake of the primary. So the volume keeps ratcheting up.

So here's the question: would open primaries make a difference? I don't mean the weak-tea version we currently have in MA (party primaries that unenrolleds can vote in one of) -- I really mean a two-round election, with a single open non-party primary and a runoff between the top vote-getters. It would be bitterly opposed by the party machines, of course (since it would essentially break their power), and kind of sucks for the small marginal parties, but I'm failing to come up with any way in which it wouldn't be better for the electorate as a whole. It would greatly disadvantage extremists and tribalists, in favor of moderates -- in my book, that's a win. And it might just lead to some Republicans who I could actually vote for, which I've seen few of in the past decade or two...
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The parties should be free to manage their own affairs, instead of being quasi-state agencies. That means that the state shouldn't manage any part of the process that the party uses to nominate its candidate - and also shouldn't pay for it. If a party wants to have a primary, they should finance it (and the smaller, more tech-savvy parties might have on-line primaries). They are private organizations.

That said, I'd like run-offs or ranked preferences for those party candidates that do get placed on the ballot.

I could see that working, but only if followed all the way through: the implicit support given to the big parties would need to be pulled out completely, so that they can split more easily. If it was easier for moderate Republicans to basically walk out, create a new party and still have a realistic chance, then the parties themselves become somewhat less dangerous -- the risk of splitting becomes an implicit check on extremism. Indeed, it's important to make sure that the system isn't tilted in favor of parties over independents, which is a major problem today.

(It has the potential downside that ballots might get considerably longer: the number of candidates could grow a lot. But that seems like a relatively modest risk.)

*Sigh*. Days like today remind me of why Washington disliked political parties...

That sounds reasonable to me.

When I was very small (or possibly before I was born: I don't so much remember any of this as remember knowing about all of it), in Washington State we had party nominating conventions, which determined who each party's candidate for each position in the general election would be. There was also an election every two years (which I believe may have been funded by the parties) in which people voted for their local precinct committee person. (A precinct being around 400 households.) The precinct committee members met in county conventions, which elected representatives to state conventions. (Which in years divisible by 4 sent delegates to the National convention - which is how my mom, a poor working class housewife, ended up at a Democratic National Convention and why I know about all this.) At some point, somebody decided that all of this was smoke-filled rooms and undemocratic, so we ended up with primary elections. It always seemed to my mom, and has always seemed to me, that the old way was actually a lot more democratic.

(Washington also had (and for all I know, still has) a very simple way for third parties to get on the general election ballot: any party could be on the ballot if it had received a certain (fairly small) percentage of the vote in the last election; any other party could get on the ballot by getting some small number of registered voters to sign a petition.)

I don't think open primaries would make a difference. It isn't primaries that select for partisanship, but campaign finance in general.

Campaigns are expensive, and access to party funds and support is generally key to success. But, if you are to access those funds and that support, you need to serve the party - and that means being partisan.

True, although again I think only part of the story. (One reminder from this conversation is that there are a *lot* of underlying problems.)

The thing that's distinct about partisan primaries is that they select quite strongly for the extreme -- not just affiliation with party, but passionately tribal thinking. Since you're playing to a self-selected electorate, the best way to pander to that electorate is to go very purely tribal: that's what your electorate has in common, after all.

Campaign finance certainly plays into the problem, but I think it's a bit of a second-order effect: while it requires playing to the base, it doesn't necessarily select for hyper-partisans. Indeed, it often selects against them, since hyper-partisanship is a dangerous approach to a general election: it's why the Republicans tanked so badly in this MA election. The party money, by and large, *wanted* more centrist candidates, not people like Christine O'Donnell. But in the end, the money goes to whoever wins the primary.

Or to put it more concretely: the partisan primaries are what allowed the Tea Party to gain a foothold, *despite* campaign finance. Their candidates often fought the primaries uphill against the established party money, which was flowing generally to less-extreme candidates until then. They got access to the money then -- and since they tended to be extreme candidates, they tended to use the money in extreme ways...

In a primary, your electorate has party membership in common, yes. But, since they don't share a desire for extremism (see recent rally attendances), I think you end up overestimating the effect.

The action in a single case - the Tea Party this election cycle, for example - is not strong support for a general effect. In your last paragraph you seem to hit the point - the primaries allowed it to happen. Failing to prevent is not the same as causing.

And, honestly, the Tea Party movement is well-funded enough (often by sources that would normally fund the GOP), and many of their battles not at all uphill, so that I don't think their success is "despite" anything.

since they don't share a desire for extremism (see recent rally attendances), I think you end up overestimating the effect.

Possible, but my understanding of the statistics is that the more extreme elements of both parties are significantly more likely to vote in primaries, so the extremism gets concentrated during primaries. Indeed, this is the foundation of the convention wisdom that a politician is supposed to tack towards the extremes during the primary, and towards the center in the general election. That makes sense, except that some of them are *honest* about their extremism, not just centrists who are pandering to the extremes to win the primary...

If that's the case, then open or closed will make little difference - you'll still tend to get extremists out of the primary.

Open would only help if those smaller numbers are specifically concentrated on a small number of candidates, while the extremists are spread out over many. But I would expect open primaries to spread everyone out, in general.

You might get a win in specific cases, but not a general pattern strong enough to count on.

We've got open primaries here. Considering our lack of choices on the ballot, I'd say it doesn't make a bit of difference here other than the voters have a chance to weed out (or unfortunately, support) the extremists from the main parties. Where I live, it is the open primary that ultimately determines who gets elected rather than the general election.

Your mileage may vary.

Where I live, it is the open primary that ultimately determines who gets elected rather than the general election.

In what respect? I don't think I'm understanding what you mean, and I'm curious...

Most of the candidates running for SC State House representative positions were running unopposed. The general consensus (and experience) is that for any state-wide or national election, a Republican candidate will win, so the open primary allows the voters that bother to turn out a chance to pick which Republican candidate is put forward.

It is very disappointing that our local political climate is such that the "loyal opposition" doesn't even bother to put forth candidates.

Ah, I see. Yeah, there's a somewhat similar effect in reverse in MA (that is, of Democrats running unopposed), although it sounds like it's more extreme in SC. MA is strongly Democratic, but has enough of a Republican undercurrent to at least put up a fight. Frankly, if they'd nominated more centrist candidates, I think they might have done pretty well here this year: it was a Democratic sweep, but not a steamrollering, and a five-point swing would have changed a lot of outcomes.

But what I was suggesting is actually more extreme: a single open primary, with no party divisions, that always returns the two top vote-getting candidates for the final election. If the Republicans have overwhelming numbers, you could wind up with two Republicans in the election -- with the result that the one with broadest appeal is likely to win. Essentially, it makes party less central, and seems likely to produce a ratcheting-down of the tribalism.

(Not that I really think there's a snowball's chance in hell of this happening, and it's possible that one of the alternative voting schemes might have similar effects...)

Reforming primaries is trying to cure a symptom. The disease is our voting system, which implicitly creates a strong 2-party system where only politicians get elected.

Good brief discussion of alternative voting systems in Siderea's LJ, earlier today.

Largely agreed, although I'm happy to bat about any and all possible solutions. They're not mutually exclusive.

Keep in mind, I don't *care* that much about the voting system per se -- what I care about is the way in which politics are getting wedged, such that compromise is approaching impossibility and nothing can get done. The voting system and partisan primaries both feed into that, but they're distinct causes; the one doesn't necessarily underlie the other. Partisan primaries lead to more-extreme candidates on the ballot; the voting system means that extremists have a better chance of getting elected.

But I will agree that the voting-system problem is a deeper element, and reforming it would probably have more dramatic beneficial effects...

Sidebar to the primary process

I read that one of the Senators from Nevada was "retiring" because he was sick of spending 90% of his time fundraising and only spending 10% of his time working on the business and governance of the nation. The article indicated this was typical of any Congress-critter. I'm thinking that election reform needs to be heavily considered. I'll have to dig around to see if I can find the article again. The election results have shoved everything off the regular news pages....

Re: Sidebar to the primary process

Doesn't surprise me: there have been several Congressmen from both houses who have been expressing increasing disgust with the process lately. Far as I can tell, electioneering has hit its ridiculous extreme, to the point of completely taking the fun out of politics.

(And I do think this matters. Job satisfaction is crucial for being successful in any career, and politics is no exception. We want politicians who are fired up by the opportunity to do good; the current process probably makes it difficult to maintain that outlook...)

Re: Sidebar to the primary process

In terms of entertaining various (fanciful, never-gonna-happen) suggestions, how about instituting strict term-limits. That is to say, elected officials are only allowed to serve _one_ term in their current office. Then they have to wait let's say three or four years before being allowed to run for any elected office again. That could do away with the fact that most politicians spend most of their time fund-raising and tend to be more concerned with voting in ways that will help them get re-elected than in voting for what's best for their constituency. It could also do away with career politicians and might mean that the people who served actually did so because they cared more about serving.

Just an off-the-cuff idea.

Re: Sidebar to the primary process

Possible, although I have mixed feelings about term limits in general; in most cases, I find them an overly blunt instrument. Many leadership positions take a good while to really learn -- specifically to Congress, it looks to me like it takes a while to go from "idealistic but quixotic" to "effective". In the SCA, I've generally observed that it takes about two years to get the hang of being a Baron; it's hard to imagine Congress being any easier.

That said, it's true that reducing the notion of politics-as-career has some real advantages: leaders who aren't desperate for re-election are often the ones most likely to be good ones. For example, Patrick gets points from me in the post-election coverage for popular stands he specifically *refused* to take (eg, immigrant-bashing), which might have made re-election a bit easier but which went against his grain. A good example that the politician who hasn't invested his identity too deeply into his office tends to do the office more justice...

Re: Sidebar to the primary process

You got the point. I'm not normally in favor of term-limits as a tool either, but I was thinking about how to eliminate politics as a career. It's very hard to make the tough calls, when the re-election campaign is always right around the corner. So how do we get more people into office who want to serve the people, but are willing to do the hard thing even when it means losing the next time (since making all votes secret would cause even more problems).

Re: Sidebar to the primary process

We've just seen an example of term limits in action.

Let's go one step farther and eliminate primaries. Anyone who can meet the petitioning requirements (which must be applied uniformly, unlike now) can get on the ballot and make his pitch to the voters. This would have to be combined with ranked voting, which I already support for other reasons.

If primaries do exist, they should become the privilege and responsibility of the parties holding them, as someone else already said.

Sounds good to me. Except that you don't need to "combine" this with ranked voting -- ranked voting by itself makes primaries irrelevant by making it possible for independent candidates to actually win office. Enact ranked voting, and primaries will "wither away", followed by political parties (unless parties continue to be a major conduit for campaign finances).

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